Potential Hot Spots: Syria and Lebanon

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Items About Areas That Could Break Out Into War

October 26, 2005: There appear to be major internal rifts in the Syrian Baath Party, with some "liberal" leaders hoping to effect more reforms (if only cosmetic ones) to placate internal opposition and Western critics, while "conservative" elements want to keep the lid on.

As the liberals are more attuned to events outside of Syria, in a further effort to open things up, they are reportedly establishing a "think tank" that will provide President Asad with an alternative source of intelligence on international political and diplomatic developments affecting Syria, because the country's intelligence services are heavily dominated by the conservative faction in the party.

Meanwhile, a UN probe into the death of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri has found that the likely culprits were senior Syrian officials. The probe is led by a German prosecutor, and an international team of thirty investigators and other staff. The probe has been stonewalled by Syrian officials, and members of the investigation team have received death threats. But the Syrians apparently left enough of a trail for the blame to get placed on Syrian officials. There have been over a dozen attacks on Lebanese officials in the past year, and most are believed to have been attempts by Syria to intimidate Lebanese into accepting continued Syrian domination. That plan has not worked, but the withdrawal of Syrian troops and secret police from Lebanon this year has revived ethnic and religious tensions that the Syrians have suppressed for fifteen years. There are signs that the 1975-90 Lebanese civil war may revive. The immediate cause of that bloody conflict was the growing military power of Palestinian refugees. The Lebanese, like most Arabs, would not allow the Palestinians to settle in Lebanon, so the Palestinians continue to live in refugee camps, and are considered refugees who will eventually go home (once Israel is destroyed.) Since the Palestinians are not likely to go anywhere any time soon, and the Lebanese won't accept them, bad relations are common. That is bad relations in the form of gun battles and dead bodies. Once such incident occurred at the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp near the port city of Sidon. Palestinian militants has developed bad relations with several nearby Lebanese clans, and this led to a battle that left five wounded. The Lebanese army had to intervene to stop the fighting.

The Sunni, Shia, Christian and Druze populations all have their own militias, and are wary of each other. The Shia are considered particularly dangerous, because one of their militias is the Islamic radical group Hizbollah, which is heavily subsidized by Iran. Most Lebanese would rather not go to war with Israel, or, better yet, just treat Israel as a trading partner. But Hizbollah wants to destroy Israel, and was restrained for years by the Syrians. With the Syrians gone, it's up to the Lebanese government to keep Hizbollah from increasing their attacks on Israel. But if it comes to a fight between Lebanese troops and Hizbollah, the civil war could re-ignite.

And then there's a potential war in Syria. The country has long been run by the Asad family, and a coalition of other Alawite clans. Think organized crime on a national scale. The "Asad gang" kept the peace through terror, and doling out goodies to supporters (and threats to the less enthusiastic and reliable.) The Sunni Arabs are the majority in Syria, but they are cowed, or bribed, into acquiesce. Moreover, Syria is an ally (more out of convenience) with Iran. This means that Hizbollah (and Lebanese Shias in general, about 35 percent of the population) support Asad, and the return of Syrian troops to Lebanon if the civil war breaks out again.

And then there's the terrorism problem. Syria has long supported terrorist groups, mainly because this gave it more diplomatic clout. This meant that, because Syria was a refuge for these terrorists, Syria had immune from attacks on themselves, and had some ability to control who the terrorists attacked, or did not attack. Syria, in return for economic and military aid from Iran, also supported Iranian terrorist operations. The problem here is that most of these terrorists are anti-U.S., thus making Syria a base for people who want to kill Americans. Syria says this isn't so, but the many terrorist groups still operate openly in Syria. The U.S. could invade Syria and try to establish a democracy, but that would give power to Sunni Arabs, many of whom are supporters of al Qaeda, and other Islamic radical groups. Removing the Asad gang from power would also lead to a civil war among the many factions that would like to take over as dictator. Democracy is nice, but all most people in the Middle East know is that you can only depend on your family, because for as long as anyone can remember, nations were ruled by tyrants. Democracy is considered some kind of fantasy in the region, although many are curious to try it.

Eventually, Syria has to clean up its act and behave like a civilized nation. The question is not just when, or how, but who is going to pay for it, and supervise the messy process. There are no volunteers stepping forward.
 

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